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Cars 2.0 : It’s Time for an Upgrade

Who decides these version numbers?

What do you imagine when you think of a car?

Cars are undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary inventions of all time. However the fact remains that even though it’s been a hundred years since their inception, they remain the noisy, inefficient, fuel-guzzling, pollution-spewing monsters that they were when they began. Cars are like lions tamed to act like kittens — cute, but you wouldn’t trust your kids around them.

What we see coming is a change in the definition of what makes a car. Future definitions will not be limited to a machine which runs on fuel, or has four wheels or even has wheels at all! After a long time we are due to see a change in the internals, the kernel, if you will, of the car. A version increment is thus fitting.

Green cars

Cars are one of the major factors responsible for environmental pollution. Vehicles have become so integrated into our lives that we dare not even discuss if their benefits outweigh their costs. Stricter and stricter norms are being put into place, but our final goal of a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) is still far away from becoming mainstream. Besides the environmental considerations, these technologies decrease a country’s reliance on imported oil.

Let’s see what we have to look forward to.


The concept of electric cars has been around for so long, that by all means it should have been obsolete by now! However, electric cars have only become a possibility recently. With new innovations in batteries, storing more energy in a smaller space, we can now have inexpensively manufactured, and cheap running electric cars.

One of the reasons electric sometimes seems to lose favor is the fact that electricity itself isn’t clean. Many power stations themselves run on polluting fuels, and thus seem to defeat the whole purpose of the electric car. In this light, alternative fuel choices start to look more favorable, especially since they are more compatible with the systems already in place.

An electric car is at best as clean as the power-supply station for the area where it is charged. However, with efforts underway to make the power generation stations pollution free, they cannot just be dismissed off-hand. For early adopters, electric cars are already available, even in India, with the Reva; a compact two-seater car which comes at an affordable price.

Electric cars use, quite unsurprisingly, electric motors which are powered by on-board batteries. One might wonder why it is so difficult to make electric cars, when the essential technology can be seen even in some of the cheapest toy-cars.

The energy required to run a car is considerable, and unlike a toy-car, an actual car needs to run longer, faster, and needs to carry more weight. The only way to do this is to add more batteries to the car, which has the unfortunate consequence of increasing the car’s weight and thus requiring even more batteries to run! With the lead-acid batteries found in cars today, making an electric car is quite inefficient. These, if used, will also need quite some time to charge and will need to be replaced occasionally. Using NiMH or Lithium-ion cells increases the range and life of the car; at a cost — a price 10 to 20 times as much!

Electric cars can also take advantage of concepts such as regenerative braking, where energy released by braking the car is used to help recharge the batteries. Energy obtained from driving the car on a downward slope can also be used to recharge the car. These technologies greatly increase the efficiency of the car; since the energy used here is otherwise wasted.

So the only thing that stands in the way of electric cars is the battery-pack. Since improvements in batteries affect a wide range of devices, we are in luck, as most manufacturers are already hard at work trying to improve the life and recharge characteristics of batteries, and are busy driving down their cost.

Fuel cells

Fuel cells to the rescue! These marvelous devices are capable of producing electricity directly from the fuel without involving any messy combustion. The basic concept used here is the same as an electric car; however instead of needing to recharge the car from an external source, the fuel cell produces the required electricity. As they can be refueled instantly, no long periods of recharging are required. Fuel cells remove most of the disadvantages of electric cars.

Additionally, since they are essentially electric cars, they too can utilize regenerative braking and energy from driving on downward slopes. They remove the long periods of recharge, increase the energy density, and don’t need occasional replacements. However the cost factor remains an inhibiter.

Fuel cells have already started to become a reality for consumer electronics; however cars represent a bigger challenge due to their much greater energy requirements. As such, fuel cell cars are currently not production ready; however, with research being done by the Freedom CAR initiative, and CaFCP (California Fuel Cell Partnership), the performance and cost issues are sure to be resolved.

For the purpose of cars, the most commonly considered option is a hydrogen fuel cell. These run on hydrogen gas and produce only water as output, making them very environmentally safe. Even if an organic compound of hydrogen such as methane or ethanol is used, there are minimal by products.

Hybrid solutions

Electric cars are certainly wonderful, but when you’re unable to pick up grandma because you forgot to charge the car last night, things get embarrassing. One important consideration with any new technology is how compatible it is with the status quo. Electric cars are suddenly alien to most of our notions of a car.

Hybrid cars are a middle ground. As their name suggests, they form an evolutionary transition between electric- and fuel-powered vehicles. They typically contain a fuel engine along with electric motors. To make the concept even more attractive, the engine in the car could be additionally made to run on alternative fuels such as CNG/LPG, decreasing the environmental impact even further. They manage to give a much better mileage, and are also capable of using regenerative braking to their advantage. Since we have essentially two engines in the same car, the gasoline engine can be made smaller than otherwise required in a normal car of similar size.

Hybrid cars can either use the fuel engine exclusively, or can run on battery power, enabling the car to be charged and run for short distance on battery power alone. Hybrid cars are becoming quite popular nowadays, as they get cheaper and are more easily available. Government initiatives also exist in some countries for people who use hybrid cars.

Alternative fuels

Most people seem to want to defer the usage of alternative fuels, until the time when there is No Other Alternative. However, gasoline’s end times are approaching, and the sooner the transition to the alternatives, the better. Delhi is already a front runner in this effort, with all public transportation already running on CNG.

As long as there is combustion there will be some unwanted products but it is also not feasible to expect each and every car to turn on a dime and switch to electric or fuel-cell based systems. Alternative fuels require an easier transition, and that is their charm, to significantly reduce emissions while maintaining backwards compatibility. Many current cars can be modified to make them compatible with alternative fuels such as CNG, ethanol, and bio-fuels, and can in fact even be made to run in a dual-fuel mode, with the option to run it off either CNG or gasoline. Furthermore, engines can be specially designed to run on multiple fuels, automatically adjusting their characteristics to those appropriate for the current fuel mixture.

The very word alternative means there’s more than one, and there is more than one gasoline replacement out there. Although we seem to have settled with CNG today, that is not the end of it, and over time, better alternatives will come up. Hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines are quite possible, and since their end-product is water, the environmental impact is almost nil. Such cars are actively in development.

Air cars

What could possibly be more renewable and less polluting than air itself! Engines which can run on compressed air have been in the making since as far back as 1920, but recently this field has seen significant progress. In-fact TATA is even considering an Air Engine version of its upcoming Nano, and has tied with the Moteur Development International (MDI) in this effort.

Compressed air engines have significant issues that need to be addressed before they enter the market. Such cars are required to be very light, and many fear that the safety of the car may be compromised as lighter, thinner, material will be required for the body. Refueling and range are also issues. Don’t expect to be able to fill up the tank with your trusty old foot pump; they require that the tank be filled up to a pressure of 4500 psi, or over 300 times the atmospheric pressure! Compressed air itself costs energy to make, thus the compressed air engine is only as clean as the energy used to compress the air.

Solar cars

These have oscillated between popularity and obscurity many times. To this day the fact remains that solar energy is just not feasible as a standalone source of energy for running a car. Even the best commercial solutions use solar power as an additional source of energy. Solar energy by its very definition fails to be a fully competent energy source for cars.

A solar car shares the basic concept of an electric car, with additional constraints on the weight of the car body, and other components. To be practical they need a battery as well, to provide a constant power supply to the car even in conditions of low-light. The usual advantages of the electric car such as regenerative breaking apply here as well. Some of the available solar technologies for cars are limited to improving the efficiency of electric, hybrid, or even normal cars, by recharging batteries while the car is parked under the sun.

The most popular use of fully solar cars today is in solar-car races, with cars which look more like floating silver carpets. Solar cells are bound to get more efficient, and we may one day see a car that runs purely on solar energy. However, for now they are destined only to be conceptual contraptions.

Cognizant cars

Three out of every five drivers don’t know how to drive properly, and the cars don’t seem to mind. A day will come when cars, like children growing up, will realize that running into a tree might be counterproductive. Tomorrow’s cars will need to be smart, maybe not as smart as KITT, but smart enough to know when more brakes are required than applied by the driver in-charge. Today’s cars have as many as 50 microprocessors controlling various aspects of their workings — from managing the car’s AC temperature and stereo volume, to controlling the rate of firing of the spark plugs. Throw in a couple of hundred more, and the car can be made aware of its location via GPS and aware of any surrounding cars, aware of traffic signals, and aware of the fact that the idiot behind the wheel is just too drunk to drive.

Braking assist

A large number of accidents are caused due to inadequate braking, when it is needed the most. Brake-assist systems can greatly decrease the chances of an accident, and otherwise decrease the impact of a collision. Although collapsible steering wells and air-bags assuage the blow when the accident happens, this technology takes the proactive step of decreasing the chance of an accident ever happening. Systems developed by Volvo and Diamler-Benz are intelligent enough to understand when the brakes are being applied in an emergency and will boost the power to the brakes so that the car stops in time. Volvo’s CWAB (Collision Warning with Auto Brake) system has radar to detect possible collisions, and appropriately power up the brakes, so that sufficient braking is achieved. It can even respond with warning lights and sounds if the driver fails to respond in time, and will automatically brake to decrease collision speed even after the collision has become unavoidable.

Cruise control

Hopefully, by the time this technology hits mainstream cars, we would have forgotten about Speed II: Cruise Control, to not be put off by its name. Cars with Autonomous Cruise Control are capable of anything from automatically controlling the car’s speed to completely unassisted driving. This one seems straight out of science fiction, but in fact is already available, and had been demonstrated as far back as 1995 by Mercedes-Benz with a specially designed S-Class car. Using lasers or radar, cars with Autonomous Cruise Control systems can locate and track other traffic on the streets, and appropriately change the speed of the car – slowing down in traffic and speeding up when the roads clear. They also use information about speed limits from an in-built GPS to ensure that the car always stays within driving limits.

Best of all, this is available today! If you’re willing to shell out a few cores of course. Do not despair; over time these features will trickle down to the cars most people can afford, just like ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) did. The future is here! Really, we checked.

Assisted parking

How many times have you nicked someone’s bumper while trying to parallel park? Afraid someone will catch you in the act one of these days? Assisted parking means never having to say sorry; it’s like love, but less complicated. With assisted parking systems, all you need to do is align the car near the parking position, and tell it where to park, and the car will park itself. Is this even important enough to implement? Why not park yourself? Parking is one of those few instances where we often require the car to go backwards, occasionally requiring third-party assistance in assuring us we are doing it right. A lot of time is wasted in parking procedures, and if this repetitive task can be left to the car, so much the better. This may not seem essential, but it surely is beneficial. Current technologies aren’t smart enough to locate a parking spot, and park automatically, they need some input from the user as to where to park. Fully-automated parking will surely be available someday, and society will be left with one less nuisance to joke about. With the parking left to the car, the driving to the cruise control, and with braking assist to make ensure that you won’t bash into anyone, the future will be a much safer place to drive. Who knows, passengers might even be recommended to pass out drunk before driving, ensuring that they don’t mess with the controls?!

The shape of things to come

Now that we’ve paid attention to the inner beauty of cars to come, we can safely discuss that which we really care about the most – its looks! The fact is, looks matter. No matter how much you crave a car with muscle, you’d still laugh at a Twin V8 Turbo engine powering a Maruti 800.

Over time you’ll notice a trend that cars tend to get curvier, and generally more pleasing to the eye, ever new models come with at least one corner replaced by a curve. Companies spend large amounts of money to ensure the entire body of the car seems like one smooth unbroken surface, a technique called Class A surfacing. Not only does this make the cars more visually pleasing, but also more streamlined. So you see the curves have a purpose, as always. We are getting faster and faster cars, and the externals of the car are starting to matter more.

The concept of concept

If you open up any car magazine you are sure to find those car renderings which seem like squashed-down stealth aircraft, until you squint and see signs of wheels and a label somewhere saying ‘Concept Model’. Are these cars destined only to live in our dreams? If you look at concept car drawings from decades ago, they will look like the same wacky, contrived designs we see in concept cars today. The only difference is that today they are much closer to reality. Which is not saying much, since many of those designs are likely never to come out. Such assaults to our senses are best humored only in car exhibitions and magazines. Hey, but a guy can drool, can’t he?

Most of these cars are meant to show off a new philosophy of car design and will usually undergo a lot of changes before they are eventually released for purchase. This also helps the manufacturers garner early feedback from people before they commit to a new design which will cost millions. This doesn’t mean that concepts never come to fruition, on rare occasions manufacturers have released concepts, such as the 2002 Pontiac Solstice which was released in 2006.

Do androids dream of electric cars?

We have come a long way from the clunky, boxy monstrosities that our ancestors called cars. Cars are no longer a privilege of the privileged, more a convenient conveyance for the common man. We can dream of teleportation, but in all probability we will be driving our cars (or be driven by them!) for many, many years to come. Until better means become available, cars will get faster, better looking, lighter, cheaper and less polluting. Today, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable time where our knowledge and thus our judgment would have us abandon the polluting monsters that ply the roads. Those who have the means and care enough, have already begun to switch to greener technologies, but they will need to get much cheaper if any kind of mass adoption is to be expected.

A few years ago, before computers, the internet, and GPS, a lot of today’s car technologies would have been inconceivable. Who would have thought about intelligent cars back then? Or in fact any kind of inanimate intelligence. Intelligence is a property that we associate increasingly with devices as well as with humans these days.

It is quite likely that some of the technologies that we will see in the cars of tomorrow are based on technologies that we cannot yet imagine. What remains to be seen is whether our cars can get smarter, faster than we get dumber.

Flying Cars

Flying cars have always been a dream, but don’t expect them to look anything like the cars from Back to the Future. They are rather more like small aircraft that can travel on roads. Examples are Parajet Skycar to be available soon for (£50,000 or around Rs. 40 lakh), and the X-Hawk, a personal helicopter of sorts available for US$3 million (around Rs. 50crore) in 2010.Amphibian cars They are here today, although used more by the military. Still, amuse yourself with the thought that you could now avoid the traffic jam by directly cutting across that pesky river.

Dream Electric
The Tesla roadster

Here is another reason to go electric besides the usual excuse of saving-the-environment: The Tesla Roadster.

This petite, yet powerful, beast will take you from 0 to 100 KPH in under 4 seconds, while still maintaining its composure. You can burn the road at its top speed of 200 KPH, and still expect a mileage of 50 KPL, enough to put your neighbor’s motorcycle to shame! Designed as a sports car, it gives some of the best performance characteristics for electric cars. On a single charge, it can whisk you away as far as 375 Km thanks to its battery pack of 6,831 lithium ion cells, which Tesla refers to as its Energy Storage System. Even after all this it needs only 3 ½ hours to charge! It has a smooth carbon fiber body, and a powerful 3-phase 4-pole electric motor capable of an impressive 285 hp (315 hp for the Sports version), and an efficiency of as much as 90 per cent.

This is the first car developed by Tesla Motors, which is a rather new company that focuses on electric cars. The Tesla Roadster was a joint effort with Lotus Cars, which supplied some components and technology, and the car itself was assembled in a Lotus factory. The internals of the car (motor, electronics etc) were developed by Tesla Motors itself, based on technology licensed from AC Propulsion.

Despite it’s pure awesomeness, it comes at a somewhat reasonable (for a one of a kind electric powered sports car) price of $98,000. Go book it today for your 40th birthday.